Teaching: A Terrifying Career Detour

Teaching: A Terrifying Career Detour
Posted 19 June 2012 by Hannah Berry

This time next week I will be in Darkest Shropshire, teaching a residential writing course. Yes, teaching. You heard me.


It's frankly not something I'd have ever, ever planned to go into before the opportunity arose, but in the creative industries particularly it pays to live like a hermit crab - opportunistically scuttling into bigger and bolder carapaces whenever they come your way. Over time you grow into them, no matter how daunting they might be in the beginning or how ridiculous the fit.


Generally, I've found that a career can only be advanced through terrifying ordeals. (It's possible that the same can also be said for life - I'll let you know when I get the results in.) There's that old motto that demands you 'do one thing a day that scares you', and I suspect it may be right. You have to leave your comfort zone once in a while, and I admit this grudgingly as a lifelong denizen of the comfort zone. The only thing I'd argue with is the frequency: one scary deed per day is difficult to maintain without resorting to clearly unprofitable things, like waking a sleeping cat with your face. Otherwise, though, the theory is sound - perhaps the best opportunities are always the ones that fill you with the most fear?


The week-long course I'm co-tutoring is ably run by the Arvon Foundation, a charity who hold courses throughout the year at remote but absurdly picturesque locations around the county. Their courses cover virtually all areas of the writing spectrum: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, autobiography, playwriting, writing your first novel, writing for children, and many others


I've taught on the graphic novel writing course for two years running, both times with the mighty Bryan Talbot (who has been a tutor on the course since its inception, I believe) and I'm reassured to know that he'll be my co-tutor again this year. He's a lovely chap who really knows his trade inside out and who I suspect knows more John Cooper Clarke off by heart than John Cooper Clarke does.


When I was asked to teach on the course initially there was about a year between the asking and the actual undertaking, and that seemed like a safe amount of distance at the time. Anything could happen in a year. Surely any number of life-changing events would take place in that time that would give me the skills and confidence to teach a class of strangers?


Absolutely no life-changing events took place in that time that might have given me the skills and confidence to teach a class of strangers. A month before the course I found myself knuckling down in a cold sweat to work out what the hell I knew that could possibly be of value to anyone.


After some brain-storming and -wracking it turned out - and this surprised me as much as anyone - that I did know some things worth teaching. Things I'd picked up along the way; tricks of the trade; trials that I'd erred in, that kind of thing. It was an odd realisation because I don't feel any wiser than when I first decided to start writing for fun some 14 years ago.


A few weeks later and I'd drummed up several suitable activities aimed at developing general writing skills and skills specific to graphic novels. They looked about right, but you never can tell until you try these things out. Teaching exercises are like pasta: you'll know they're ready when you throw them out there and see how much sticks. I had the content, all I needed was the confidence to launch these things at strangers, and that, sadly, I definitely did not have. But I shouldn't have worried.


On the long train journey before each course I mentally prepared myself to meet the worst and most repellent people imaginable, and both times I'm happy to say that that couldn't have been further from the truth. The students, from a variety of ages and background and genders (well, male and female), have all been brilliant. A really sound bunch of people, which is frankly just as well as without internet access and mobile reception you have no choice but to get along. I'm pretty sure I didn't deserve such a forgiving audience, especially that first week, but they were kind, they were keen and, most importantly, nobody knocked my glasses off and stormed out. In fact, the groups were so eager that I didn't so much lead the class at times as get swept along by it.


Part of the challenge of writing anything is keeping the enthusiasm burning - once the fire goes out in a project, it's often difficult to revive. Most of my life I've spent listing from one idea to another, and the massive Word document graveyard is a testament to all the times the stuffing has just fallen out of an idea. But this is an area in particular where these residential courses really shine. There's a collaborative storm of creative energy that grows throughout the week - everyone is working on his or her own project, but there's an openness that lets people bounce ideas around and shoot the creative breeze. Exhilarating stuff. Even as a tutor I return home galvanised and ready to work on my own projects.


Now, I'm a cautious person. I'm not going to start counting my chickens here. The course next week is an entirely unknown quantity and conclusion-jumping always ends in tears, but even if it all ends in tears and the knocking off of glasses I can say that the previous two years have been up there with the most gratifying experiences of my life. On a scale of one to rewarding, I'd say it's about an 11. If it were just hanging around with a mix of different but strangely like-minded people for a week that would have been enjoyable in itself, but the fact that I've helped facilitate in my own small way the development of so many brilliant projects (seriously, some of these ideas I'd steal in the blink of an eye if I could) is hugely satisfying. I'd be flattering myself something terrible if I took any credit for the successes of previous Arvon students, but a lot of them really have succeeded, and I can't help but be proud of them. (For some previous students' experiences, have a look here)


So unnerving though it has been and will be again next week, I think I could get used to this particular shell. The blind terror of standing up and teaching on the first course was reduced to a simple anxiety by the second and, who knows, maybe I'm even getting better at it?




If you're interested in writing surrounded by fabulous people and rolling hills, I can heartily recommend the courses offered by the Arvon Foundation. They're run with a relatively small group of students - up to 16 people - so they have a friendly, intimate atmosphere that neatly distracts from how full-on the week is - lessons in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon, and some (occasionally drunken) presentations in the evening. If you're swift, there may even be space on the graphic novel course next week…


And though Arvon's courses focus on writing, I'd also like to mention a new course they've just started, 'Text and Image', which promises to address a the visual side as well. It's run by Margaret Huber and Graham Rawle, both of whom I've had the pleasure of being taught by: Margaret was my absolute favourite tutor at art school and Graham was easily the best visiting lecturer we had. Whatever they do for this course, I can guarantee it will be worth it.  




Ghostwriter by RJD2




For all the Arvonites.

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